A register of information asset registers. Good idea? Bad idea?

After lunch on day two, delegates at Open Data Camp 9 had the chance to explore more of Manchester on a Joy Diversion walk around the city. Yet Martin Howitt still had a good turnout for a session on asset registers. “Welcome,” he said. “I expected to be on my own, so I’m pleased so many people are here.”

Asset registers at Open Data Camp 9
What is an information asset register, he asked, for anyone new to the issue. Basically, a list of data sources. Every public organisation should have one. However, when Martin “got bored” a few years ago and put out a Freedom of Information Act request for registers, some 70% of the organisations he contacted didn’t respond.

Since then, things should have improved in local government, where there is funding and a structure to publish an information asset register. But what is people’s experience? Are registers being published, and are they useful?

Participants suggested it’s variable. Some organisations publish an information asset register, but some don’t. Where there is a register, it may not be up to date. It may list data sources, but not get into how they can be accessed. Conversely, it may contain too much information. Martin said he contacted one council for its data asset register, and got one that included lots of personal identifiable data, such as people’s names.

What’s an information asset register? What’s a data asset?

Given this variability, what would improve things? One idea is to assess the maturity of registers; but a speaker with experience of working in a government department suggested it would not be worth putting in the time and resources to get to the highest levels of maturity, given other priorities.

Another ideas is register of registers. “I can see a utopia where everybody is submitting an up to date one to a central registry, which would show us what was available,” Martin said. “But we are never going to get there, are we?”

It would certainly be difficult. As things stand, there are no standards for an ‘information asset register’. In fact, there isn’t really an agreed definition of a ‘data asset’, and the EU legislation that underpins the requirement for public bodies to publish data is incredibly broad.

Another question is whether a simple list of information assets is, in fact useful. “If you had an information asset register from every department, then every department might say they had information on ‘houses’, but the Treasury would know about tax, whereas DEFRA would know about floods,” a speaker pointed out. “That’s another level of detail.” But probably what many users will be looking for (in which case, what they really want, is not the information asset register but a data catalogue).

Generally, the session felt a better way forward would be to encourage government departments and councils to work with the users of their data. Finding a way to automate the production and updating of information asset registers would help. As would finding a way to automatically inform users of changes.  Also, speakers suggested, search is improving and LLMs may make it easier to find what’s out there.

“I am not getting a sense from around the room that this is certainly something everyone wants to see,” Martin concluded. And a speaker agreed that “I think it is going to be a lot less useful than you hope, because of all the context that would need to go around it, so you’re still going to need to talk to the data holders.”

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